It’s Election Day in Arkansas, and with polls showing a clear advantage for Republicans in the contests for U.S. Senate and the governorship, attention is being shifted down-ballot to state legislative races. One of the most hotly contested is in House District 18, a rural sprawl of southwest Arkansas centered on Arkadelphia, where incumbent Republican Richard Womack is trying to fend off Democratic challenger Damon Daniels.
As with every House race, the outcome here could potentially make the difference for control of the chamber in the upcoming legislative session; currently, Republicans hold a precarious 51-49 seat majority. But District 18 presents an especially clear contrast to voters, with the hard-right government reduction policies advocated by Womack, a residential remodeler, standing in clear contrast to the platform of his challenger. A scorecard assembled by the conservative Advance Arkansas Institute ranked Womack as Arkansas’s 6th most conservative state legislator (out of 135), placing him to the right of such firebrands as Rep. Joe Farrar and Rep. Justin Harris.
Reducing the state budget and further slashing taxes are key agenda items for Womack, who states proudly on his website, “I believe in the ‘trickle down’ economy theory. From my own personal business experience, people higher up on the socio-economic ladder are the people who hire me. Lower taxes for all go hand in hand with more opportunity for all.”
But it is Womack’s stand against healthcare reform that’s generated some of his more sensational moments. He’s famously claimed that in 2013, a lobbyist offered him $30,000 to vote for the private option, Arkansas’s unique approach to Medicaid expansion. (Womack never identified the lobbyist or pursued action against this mystery individual.) More recently, Womack was identified as one of a number of legislators who answered “yes” to a survey question asking if he’d be open to prosecuting federal employees for implementing the Affordable Care Act in Arkansas.
Daniels, the owner of a dispatch trucking company, hopes that pointing to the tangible, local benefits provided by state government will trump Womack’s messaging of fighting Obamacare and shrinking the Arkansas budget. As is the case with most Democrats in Arkansas, Daniels supports the private option, expanded pre-K access and a greater utilization of drug courts. He’s in favor of lowering taxes for the poor (Daniels calls the current structure “morally wrong”) but says he’s cautious about cuts and weighs them against what it could mean for state services.
“When you cut taxes you’re cutting our budget. When you’re cutting our budget, programs have to go,” he said. Daniels also thinks Womack’s opposition to the private option works to his advantage, given the effect that expanding insurance has had on rural hospitals and clinics. Two new Baptist Health clinics opened in HD 18 this year, and Daniels thinks the private option is what allowed the healthcare provider to expand into Bismark and Caddo Valley.
Still, he faces the stigma of being a Democrat in a cycle when traditional Democratic strongholds in Arkansas are falling. After Democrat Toni Bradford was term-limited in 2012, Womack won the open District 18 seat with 54 percent of 6,863 votes cast. As is the case with many Republicans, Womack is not afraid to run far to the right even in closely contested districts with long-standing Democratic traditions. (Womack did not respond to repeated requests for an interview for this article.)
While the two candidates differ wildly on the role of government, they are aligned on abortion and gay marriage. It’s safe to say Jerry Cox of the Arkansas Family Council is pleased. Daniels and Womack both say they define marriage as between a man and a woman. And when Daniels was asked about abortion, he gave a startlingly strong answer.
“Am I for abortion? Absolutely not, I don’t really even want to be around anyone that’s for abortion,” said the candidate. However, he qualified his statement by saying he didn’t see such social issues as being relevant to this election.
Thirty-four state House seats have contests today that feature both parties, and there’s a good chance that Republicans will hold their majority. They may perhaps even gain a few seats. The bigger takeaway from this election may come down to just how conservative the Republican legislative majority will be in 2015. Will Republican Speaker-designate Jeremy Gillam — generally considered a bi-partisan voice, like former Speaker Davy Carter — take the position in January? Or, if the most conservative wing of the party is emboldened by victories in places like District 18, will the GOP leadership next session take a turn further to the right?